By Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry and Nelly Munyasia.
Last month, the High Court of Malindi in Kenya ruled that abortion care is a fundamental right under the Constitution of Kenya and that arbitrary arrests and prosecution of patients and healthcare providers for seeking or offering abortion services is illegal. The High Court further confirmed that criminalizing abortion under Penal Code without Constitutional statutory framework is an impairment to the enjoyment of women’s reproductive right and directed the Parliament of Kenya to enact an abortion law and public policy framework that aligns with the Kenyan Constitution.
This incredible result was made possible owing to the efforts of Reproductive HealthNetwork Kenya (RHNK), a network of health professionals within private and public facilities committed to comprehensive sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR), advocacy, and service provision, and the Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR), a non-profit legal advocacy organization dedicated to promoting and defending reproductive rights worldwide.
According to Guttmacher, globally over 120 million unintended pregnancies occurred each year between 2015 and 2019, 61% of which ended in abortion. In countries that restrict access to abortion, the percentage of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion has increased over the past 30 years, from 36% in 1990–1994 to 50% in 2015–2019.
Last week, a leaked draft opinion from the United States (US) Supreme Court hinted at a likely overturning of the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe V Wade which effectively legalized abortion across all US states. When Roe V Wade was passed some 50 years ago, it set the standard for progressive laws worldwide allowing women to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. 50 years later, the possibility of retrogressing this constitutional commitment in the US and in the rest of the world is looking more likely than ever.
Such a decision would de facto open the floodgates of arrests and prosecution of patients and healthcare providers seeking or offering abortion services both in the United States and across the world. Such a move from a global power would also give grist to the anti-abortion mill worldwide, granting anti-abortion groups traction, funding, and legitimacy, and disrupting already scant services and scarce funding to civil society organisations that support the right to abortion care. In 2020, an investigation by the media organisation, Open Democracy, revealed that US right wing funding was behind “pregnancy crisis centres” which claim to provide “advice” to pregnant women but really advocate against termination of pregnancy and the right to abortion care. Moreover, if anti-abortion groups increase or expand, sexual and reproductive health and rights networks will have to redirect their energy towards stopping harmful reproductive coercion against women’s or couples’ will instead of focusing efforts on holding their governments accountable to expanding access and implement existing abortion legislation efficiently.
While lawmakers have made progress in parts of the world, they have walked back on the advances made in others. They deny the science and play politics with women’s bodily integrity challenging well-grounded evidence that banning abortion does not lead to fewer women seeking or opting for abortions; and regrettably forcing women who want to safely end a pregnancy to turn to dangerous alternatives. They also oblige healthcare providers to choose between saving a woman’s life and facing criminal charges and jail time. As evidence demonstrates, there is no such thing as prohibiting abortion. There is only banning safe abortion.
Fundamental reproductive rights are under attack by anti-gender and anti-rights extremists, guised in lawmakers’ cloaks. We know from our experience of working on ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), in Kenya and in the rest of the world, that anti- rights and anti-gender opposition groups have fought long and hard to control women’s bodies and deny them their reproductive rights.
Nelly Munyasia- Executive Director Reproductive Health Network Kenya (RHNK).
“As a service providing organisation, we have faced numerous challenges including provider arrest, harassment and extortion by the police. We have witnessed the opposition targeting and threatening our providers including protesting in front of their clinics and launching hateful online petitions. This development in the US is moving us backwards and taking away women’s rights, reducing their ability to achieve their full potential in society. It will also have economic implications for decades to come. This equally puts health care providers at risk of violence and abuse by the opposition, and harassment by the police.”
Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry, Africa Regional Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation of whom RHNK is a collaborative partner added: "Access to abortion care is a human right, essential to guarantee the health and reproductive rights of women and girls everywhere. At IPPF, we are committed to reducing the number of deaths of women and girls who are forced to turn to unsafe abortion methods for fear of arrests and harassment. In partnership with our Collaborative Partner, RHNK and other powerful voices in the region and beyond, we will continue to supply and support safe and legal abortion services and care for women and girls everywhere, challenge regressive laws and protect the rights of women and girls to have autonomy over their own bodies, including to safely end a pregnancy if they so wish."
Now more than ever, we must take a stand against this erosion of a woman’s fundamental right to her own bodily autonomy. Working in silos is no longer an option. As a global SRHR ecosystem, we must come together, protect past hard-fought wins, mobilise, and strategize to protect women and girls’ rights, including their right to abortion care.
Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry is the Africa Regional Director at the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Born in Guadeloupe, she has over 30 years of international human rights experience and leads her team to advocate, promote, and deliver sexual and reproductive health and rights in 42 sub-Saharan countries. Her leadership helps ensure that IPPF Africa Region, through locally owned organizations, protects and safeguards the rights of the most vulnerable in society.
Nelly Munyasia is the Executive Director at Reproductive Health Network Kenya (RHNK) a network of trained and committed providers ensuring access to quality and comprehensive SRHR. She is a trained nurse-midwife and a health systems expert. Nelly is an award-winning global citizen committed to championing and advocating for quality sexual and reproductive health for women, girls and young people.